Sunni and Shia have been in conflict ever since the schism following  the death of Muhammad in  630. Nowhere is the conflict between Shia and Sunni more bitter and more important that in the contested areas of Syria and Iraq.

In June 2014, in a lightning  blitzkrieg-like operation, ISIL captured a 300km stretch of land along the Euphrates river, from Mosul in the north to Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit. ISIL now has a launching pad for potential attacks on strategic sites, including the lifeblood of Iraq’s electricity generation, the Haditha dam. The gains also brought  the crisis in Iraq to the doorstep of Jordan, a key ally of the United States.

Jihadist fighters in Iraq have also seized three border crossings into Syria and Jordan and four nearby towns extending their gains and, giving the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) control over much of the country’s western frontier and directly threatening the country’s main power supply.

Contrary to the popular narrative, the lightning strike was not unanticipated. The head of Kurdish intelligence in Iraq says MI6 and CIA were warned of impending Isis-Baathist attack on Mosul and Baghdad but British and US governments failed to act

ISIL was founded during the Iraq War in 2003 and aligned with al-Qaeda in 2004. In the summer of 2014, the Sunni Muslim terrorist group styling itself Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, (ISIL), also known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) began conquering large swaths of Syria and Iran.

The name chosen is significant. The ISIL claim Syria and Iraq and the Levant, which includes much of the Eastern Mediterranean, including Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus and Southern Turkey. The name was chosen to reflect the group’s caliphate ambitions.

ISIL’s stated ambitions are focused on creating an “emirate” in the parts of Syria and Iraq it now controls, as the first step toward the greater goal of a wider Islamic caliphate. ISIL considers Iraq and Syria as a single theatre of war. It has declared the border as non-existent. Its fighters have great mobility, and has gained experience in a variety of combat situations. As an organization, ISIL has  shown that it has planning, discipline, and depth.

Just who are these ISIL?

ISIL is led by Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, best known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdad. Its members come from Sunni Muslims and iISIL predecessors, the Mujahideen Shura Council, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Jaysh al-Fatiheen, Jund al-Sahaba, Katbiyan Ansar Al-Tawhid wal Sunnah, Jeish al-Taiifa al-Mansoura etc., and other clans whose population profess Sunni Islam.

He and they are very bad guys.

They are utterly ruthless psychopaths, slaughtering for example, 1,700 Iraqis in a single mass execution. Raouf Abdul Rahman, a highly respected figure in the Iraqi legal profession, and the Kurdish judge who sentenced former Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein to death was captured and executed by ISIL. He was killed by ISIL militants in retaliation for the killing of the former Iraqi dictator, according to Al-Mesryoon.

In October 2004, the group’s then leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi swore a loyalty oath to Osama bin Laden.

On 4 October 2011, the US State Department listed al-Baghdadi as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and announced a reward of $10 million for information leading to his capture or death.

Al-Badri had claimed responsibility for an attack in Hilla that killed 24 policemen and wounded 72 and between March and April 2011, the Islamic State claimed 23 other attacks south of Baghdad, all of them are alleged to have been carried out under al-Baghdadi’s command.

Ironically, Al-Baghdadi was captured in 2005 and held at Camp Bucca, a U.S. controlled detention facility in Iraq, until his transfer to Iraqi control in 2009. Shortly following his release, he was announced as the leader of the ISI.

The group now known as ISIL was formed back in 2006, when the Mujahideen Shura Council joined with four other insurgent factions and representatives of a number of Iraqi tribes and participated in a traditional Arab oath of allegiance known as Hilf al-Mutayibeen (“Oath of the Scented Ones”). Their oath was

“We swear by Allah … that we will strive to free the prisoners of their shackles, to end the oppression to which the Sunnis are being subjected by the malicious Shi’ites and by the occupying Crusaders, to assist the oppressed and restore their rights even at the price of our own lives … to make Allah’s word supreme in the world, and to restore the glory of Islam.”

The next day, Dawlat al-‘Iraq al-Islamiyya, “Islamic State of Iraq (ISI)”, was announced. As its ambitions expanded beyond Iraq into Syria, it adopted its present name.

After an eight-month power struggle, al-Qaeda claimed to have cut all ties with ISIL in February 2014, after the failure of repeated efforts by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to heal a dispute between ISIL and its officially anointed al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician, Islamic theologian and current leader of the militant Islamist organization al-Qaeda issued a statement that ISIL should be abolished and that al-Baghdadi should limit his group’s activities to Iraq. Al-Baghdadi is no saint. After the September 11,  2001 attacks against the United States., the U.S. State Department  offered a $25 million reward for information leading to al-Zawahiri’s apprehension .

The narrative offered by Western press is that the split occurred because ISIL was too extreme, even for al- Qaeda.  Others, including this author, believe it is instead just a power struggle amongst competing Islamic terror groups.

In Syria, The Washington Post says that Jabhat al-Nusra,  “is widely regarded among Syrians as more moderate than the hard-line ISIS, as the sole representative of al-Qaeda in Syria, where a multitude of armed groups are battling to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and also, in some places, one another.

As the groups war, the West is mostly at a loss over what to do, reminding me of Henry Kissinger’s famous comment regarding the Iran-Iraq war in the 1989s

“It’s a pity they can’t both lose.”


The West in general, and the Obama Administration in particular seem to accept the “do nothing” view advocated in an opinion piece by Edward N. Luttwak, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies published in the New York Times:

“By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s [Middle East] enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.”

He equivocated this way:

Indeed, it would be disastrous if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to emerge victorious after fully suppressing the rebellion and restoring its control over the entire country.

Then, he continued:

But a rebel victory would also be extremely dangerous for the United States and for many of its allies in Europe and the Middle East. That’s because extremist groups, some identified with Al Qaeda, have become the most effective fighting force in Syria. If those rebel groups manage to win, they would almost certainly try to form a government hostile to the United States.

Luttwak went on:

Given this depressing state of affairs, a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States…. . There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

He calls the situation, “unfortunate, indeed tragic,” but concludes:

”Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective” and concludes: “A decisive move in any direction would endanger America; at this stage, stalemate is the only viable policy option left.”

In short, this view says, “let them kill each other.”

Thomas Donnelley disagrees. He wrote in  “Worse isn’t Better” in The Weekly Standard,

If only it were so simple. Long-running, unresolved wars are extremely difficult to contain, to “limit,” or otherwise manage. They have a way of getting out of hand, particularly when one or more of the combatants is divinely inspired, as at least the al Qaeda fighters are in Syria…. .

The Syrian war is no longer a “civil war” between Syrian factions. It has become a struggle for regional power—with an Iranian-Shia axis facing off against a more disparate Sunni Gulf states-al Qaeda axis—that is limited mostly by the incompetence of the combatants. It’s a danger that only a realist could fail to see.

At this writing, it appears that the situation is rapidly headed towards wide and armed Shia-Sunni conflict to an extent not seen before. This entirely predictable (and predicted) outcome came about because the US was in such a hurry to leave Iraq that it pulled out entirely, without achieving renewal of the 2008  U.S.–Iraq Status of Forces Agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a member of the previously outlawed Islamic Dawa Party. An agreement would have allowed the US to continue to retain a military presence in Iraq.

That did not happen. Once the US forces left, the Iraq government formed with Sunni, Shia and Kurdish representatives rapidly devolved to a Shia-only government controlled by al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki, it appears, despite Western pressure for him to step down, is feeling his oats.

According to Reuters, he rebuffed Western calls to reach out to the Sunnis to defuse the uprising in the north of the country, declaring a boycott of Iraq’s main Sunni political bloc.  Instead, he upped the ante, accusing Sunni power Saudi Arabia of promoting “genocide”.

At the same time as Washington has made clear it wants Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to embrace Sunni politicians as a condition of U.S. support to fight a lightning advance by forces from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Al-Maliki has moved in the opposite direction, announcing a crackdown on politicians and officers he considers “traitors” and lashing out at neighboring Sunni countries for stoking militancy.

Al-Maliki, for all his bravado, has his work cut out for him. ISIL is dangerous, ruthless, and not without resources.

During the battle of Mosul in June 2014, ISIL allegedly became the richest jihadist group in the world after looting $429 million from Mosul’s central bank, according to the regional governor; a large quantity of gold bullion was also believed to have been stolen.

Regional analyst Brown Moses wrote on Twitter,

“That will “buy a whole lot of Jihad,”

adding, “

For example, with $429 million, ISIS could [recruit and] pay 60,000 fighters around $600 a month for a year.”

Earlier, in January 2014, in January, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi blamed “Jews and Crusaders” for stoking infighting between jihadist groups in Syria, adding: “Very soon you will be in direct confrontation—you will be forced to do so, Allah permitting.”

Richard Walton, head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, warned last year there were signs these recruits could be turned around to launch attacks in the UK. “I don’t think the public realizes the seriousness of the problem,” he said. “The penny hasn’t dropped. But Syria is a game-changer.”

FBI Director James Comey said last month: “There’s going to be a diaspora out of Syria at some point, and we are determined not to let lines be drawn from Syria today to a future 9/11.”

ISIL isn’t backing down and the notoriety has garnered some Americans.

In early 2014, as many as 15 Somali-American men have left the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in order to join radical jihadist insurgents in Syria, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They have no family members or ethnic connections to the Levant region other than a common Muslim faith.

ISIL’s gains in Iraq and Syria are blurring the lines of the Middle East map. Sunni fighters have seized various border posts on the Iraq-Syria frontier, smashing a line drawn in 1932 by colonial powers. They have linked hundreds of miles of land they control to create an Islamic Caliphate from the Mediterranean Sea to Iran.

I don’t think ISIL are going anywhere soon.

The Kurds ass an entirely new dimension. Nationalist movements in the other Kurdish-populated countries (Turkey, Syria, and Iran) have long pushed for Kurdish regional autonomy or the creation of a sovereign state. The Kurds have had partial autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991.They have been successfully defending their own turf in Iraq, making it likely that Kurdistan will become an independent country, at least within in the [former] boundaries of Iraq.

Kurds have seized the chance created by the current crisis to capture more territory and build the foundations of a future independent state.

From their autonomous enclave in northern Iraq, Kurdish fighters, known as the Peshmerga have advanced to take over disputed areas, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which they claim as their capital.

The Iraqi army has been in no position to resist thanks to the onslaught mounted by the ISIL. The Peshmerga have even been able to take over abandoned military bases.

Kurdish leaders view the sudden collapse of the Iraqi state across the north of with barely concealed glee, regarding it as a unique opportunity to strengthen their own hand. Kurdish forces, have held back the Isis advance in Iraq in Jalula in northern Iraq, fighting much more effectively than the Iraqi army forces. Iraq’s Kurds have also used the opportunity to expanded their territory beyond their autonomous region in the northeast, notably taking over the long-prized oil city of Kirkuk. The Kurds view control of the oilfields as the gateway to building a viable independent state.

In short, right before our eyes, the map of the Mideast is being dramatically redrawn.

The consequences may be vast, but they are still vastly unknown.

David E Y Sarna is a writer and former entrepreneur. He has eight published books including his latest, Evernote For Dummies, V2. He has nearly completed his first novel about the Mossad and the Jewish treasures in the Vatican’s secret archives. He is hard at work on a book about the Talmud for general readers.

© 2014 by David E Y Sarna